Book Review: Four Mums in a Boat, by Helen Butters, Niki Doeg, Frances Davies and Janette Benaddi

“Friends who rowed 3,000 miles, broke a world record, and learnt a lot about life along the way”

That’s the strap line for Four Mums in a Boat. It is an enticing story, and an inspirational one. Four mums who took up rowing to fill a Saturday morning whilst their kids were at school, and dreamed big. From the river Ouse to the Atlantic, in a couple of hops of sea-rowing, and a lot of tea, cake and prosecco consumed along the way.

Why did I pick up this book? As part of my pre-MA preparation, in order to read around the non-fiction world of rowing and sailing, and partly because it is very much ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which fascinates me.

The positive. It is very easy reading, light, with a ‘contemporary fiction’ feel to it. A colloquial style, that conveys the ordinariness of the mums. The book is well-structured, and covers the build up through to the event. You get a sense of what the individual mums have taken on, and overcome to even get to the start line in the Canaries. It is strikingly honest – and shows up their naivety too; like how to ensure the batteries of Rose (the boat) remain charged, which they failed to do, mid-Ocean.  There are too few ‘woman power’ books out there, and the ‘can do’ attitude is inspiring. It is deeply impressive.

There were aspects I didn’t enjoy. It was a muddled narrative. The book was ghost-written, by Imogen Edwards-Jones, who clearly spent a lot of time with the women. I didn’t emerge with a clear sense of which mum was which at times, and the first person narrative at times, because of the switch from ‘we’ to one of the ‘I’s’, got confusing. Even the before and after photos weren’t named, and I couldn’t be bothered to trace through the other photos to work out which mum was which. It was easy to read, but superlative and cliche ridden in places. So many ‘incredibles’…. it grew wearing. As a narrative, it was also very ‘tell’, but I think that is as function of the book feeling like a dialogue.

What I wanted more of was the reflection, and this is where the book failed in its strap line for me. The reflections were in a few paragraphs each, which seemed brief given the weight given to the preparation and the execution. Perhaps this will come in the ‘what the mums did next…’?

Four Mums in a Boat is a title that will sell, and appeal to a certain audience therefore I suspect the publishers have directed the style and the writing to suit that. That said, it is a remarkable story.

Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Two brown girls dream of being dancers–but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

In the opening chapters, I thought ‘yes, I’m going to love this..’ Why? An engaging first person narrative, with beautifully observed writing. Tracey, the rugged companion, full of verve, drive and passion. The narrator’s mother, the mousey father. I loved the reflection on the childhood friendship that I expected to be at the heart of the book. I wondered how their story would pan out. I was thrown, then, when the narrator (unnamed) was suddenly under the influence of someone else, Aimee, a child-like pop-star, to whom the narrator seemingly surrendered. It was here that I fell out of love with Swing Time, and became frustrated with the direction of the book, and the main character.

There was little joy in Swing Time, and at times this was wearing. That the main protagonist had no name was interesting – because she simply subsumed herself into others. Her mother, her friend Tracey, her boss. She was flat, and flattened, and this made for turgid reading at times. That said, I never felt like giving up, because I thought that there was more to resolve with Tracey. There was, but I’m not sure that Swing Time delivered that.

Family, friendships, race, feminism, philanthropy, loyalty – Swing Time tackles big themes, but the incoherence in the narration, from a main character without a strong voice, meant that the themes were rather echoes, with some rambling speeches (mother, Aimee, Fern, Lamin, Judy) that were easy to gloss over.

Smith’s writing is the saviour of the book. Such clarity of sentence, powerful imagery and superb dialogue. She clearly had something to explore, but sadly, for me, the choice of central character meant that the book lacked something, and wasn’t the book that I was expecting it to be. Disappointing.

Keep on running…

I saw an image/commentary that I on Instagram yesterday (@movetobewell) that stopped and made me think. Firstly, about how much we censor ourselves. Secondly, how much of the insta/Facebook/blog space is censored (self-censored), which is why I have a love-hate relationship with it. Images capture moments, like words, but they are seldom stories, which means that we see only moments, true only in that moment. Thirdly, what on earth was I doing vacuously tracking some posts, threads and images that did not amuse (mostly dogs, mostly black labradors), inspire or motivate?  As my therapist recently said:

Don’t let it rule you; you decide

So I deleted some stuff, hid some others. And felt a whole lot better.

What @movetobewell also had me thinking about, was my body. 18 months after lung surgery, and my ribs, I realised, actually don’t hurt. They are not sore, whether it’s lying on them (awkward for a long while) or asking them to work hard. A week or so I decided it’s time to claim back my cardiovascular fitness, because I am not as fit as I want to be. @movetobewell may have had a wobble at her pins (mighty strong and fine as I see them to be), but my ‘sigh’ is my general fitness, and a body heading towards menopause (but that’s a whole other topic). So, I’ve started running again. I ran a lot once upon a time, and entered a few races, enough to earn a jangle of medallions. There is a a network of lanes from the house, that means I can do a ‘tricorn’. Each one of those is about one km. Last week I did two, and today I did three without stopping. I cannot begin to explain how fantastic this makes me feel. I am no hare, but a few up from tortoise, but I will get quicker, as my lung capacity improves.

Keep on running

I know that trends in health and fitness come and go, and that the popular movement today celebrates HIIT. I get that, but if I am to become a better gig rower (my aim), then being able to smash something for a short while isn’t going to test my stamina. So, I’m back outside, on the roads, making my lungs work harder, so that I can be a fitter version of myself. It never made me thin, but it made me strong.

Running also is a great shifter of process. Last week I reconnected with how invaluable it used to be for me when I was a practising therapist. It is also true of walking, but these days, I am watching the puppy too much to let my thoughts wander. Running has always been like meditation (once I’m over the hump of ‘oh this hurts’), and I am looking forward to the day, maybe in a couple of months, when I can settle in to a long run, and really enjoy it. Running always used to be about more than fitness, it was a saviour of my mental health. I am hoping that as me and my running shoes eat up the miles, it will also bring me a better sense of myself. I am still a bit adrift, a bit lost, after the traumatic experience of my left lung breaking.

But onwards and upwards. September is coming, and somehow that’s like a second chance at January. The MA will be starting, and I will be running further and rowing better.  And of course, it means that Strictly is on the horizon. Bring on the glitter!


Book Review: The Swordfish and The Star, by Gavin Knight

I bought this book because I was completely engrossed by an article in The Sunday Times that was written by Knight, based on his book. The focus of this article ‘Cornwall Uncovered’, timed for the annual invasion of tourists to our county, considers what life is like for the remnants of the fishing communities that exist on the fringes of the westernmost coastline of the UK. Knight spent time with several people within these communities, and the book narrates their tales.

The Swordfish and The Star is a narrative non-fiction, with a feel like you’re eavesdropping on yarns being spun in a pub. It fits then that the book is named after two pubs in Newlyn. The book is rambling, and at times feels like there is a lack of focus, unlike the pithy, well-argued article in The Sunday Times. The narratives come from the men (mostly) that Knight interviewed, and their stories are written in layers around each other, with the feel that the voices are clamouring to be heard. I am not convinced, having read the book, that I have any one story straight in my mind. There is a vast call of characters, and at times it is confusing.

What I loved about The Swordfish and The Star was the fascinating insight into the lives of the fishing communities, and the harshness of the existence. It is a social history of today, drawing on parallels of the Cornish of the past. Knight explores the essence of the Cornish – a lawless, maverick and isolated people. Those wanting independence, and perhaps a resentment of the ‘emmets’. That argument is lost in the closing scene, where the tourists are seen to be part of the weekly shanty-singing evening in the Cadgwith pub.

Where I thought the book fell short was that Knight, keen to explore the myths and legends of the past, seemed to be taken in by those told to him during his research. This is as much a part of the Cornish of today. Yarns are spun, tales are exaggerated, and I wondered where the lines of truths were. Everyone loves a good story, and the Cornish are happy to embellish when someone has their ear.

Overall, Knight’s book is compelling, and illuminates the harshness of the Cornish winters and the rural poor. A world away from the cream teas, the Padsteins and the affluent second homers and holiday makers that drift down from upcountry. Cornwall is one of the poorest regions in the UK, with one of the poorest towns in the EU, and Knight does well to explore that. However, his article does it with more clarity.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

I heard George Saunders interviewed on the radio, and intrigued by his idea, exploring the in between place of life after death, I bought the book. Hardcover. The Bardo is a Buddhist concept, at a time after death where you either ascend into nirvana, or descend to be born again.

Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t an easy read, particularly the opening chapters. Saunders opening prose is dense, recounting historical extracts, almost like a series of footnotes. These are the observations of the people connected to Lincoln at the time of his son, Willie’s, death. It took some perseverance on my part to wade through this bit to find the craft of Saunders’ book. And there’s another matter. Is it a novel? It is a series of narratives, with the historical context, and then a multi-perspective narrative, rather like a play, as several souls in the bardo relate the occurrences on one night in the graveyard, after Willie is interred.

The crux of the story, and yes there definitely is a story, is that Willie Lincoln dies of typhoid fever whilst his parents, the President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, are hosting a lavish party. Lincoln is bereft, and after the funeral, goes back into the crypt and opens the ‘sick box’, and cradles his son. The other souls witness this, causing some consternation. The main narrators are Bevins, Vollman and Rev Early, who don’t really think that they are dead, and the story is the realisation of this process, of where they are, and what happens to them. It is difficult to relate much more without huge spoilers.

Lincoln in the Bardo is about more than Lincoln’s grief; through the narration of the souls in the bardo, it is much wider, an examination of humankind in itself. Every soul has their story, and they carry around something (a thing or a behaviour) that was fixed in their lifetime, or their death. Saunders explores a kind of morality, not that anyone is a judge except the reader. This is the brilliance of the book, and what lingers when the story has been told. Lincoln in the Bardo is puzzling, weird and bold. Like Ella MeanowPea it is clever, and I rate that in a book. It is also refreshing in that it is nothing like anything else I’ve ever read. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It is not a book of universal appeal, but if you are prepared to work at it, I think the reader will be rewarded.

Book Review: Beyond The Beautiful Forevers, by Katharine Boo

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Behind the Beautiful Forevers narrates the fate of three key families within this Mumbai slum, locked together in terrible and tragic circumstances. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Fatima, neighbour, born with one leg and a bitter rival of Abdul’s family. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption, and seeks to intervene (and make) from the tragedies of every day.

I bought this book for my husband, at the time of its release, as he had lived and worked in Mumbai. I visited him there a few times, and had become charmed by India and its people. We took a slum tour, in Deravi, Mumbai’s largest slum, a morning that I will never forget. Reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers some years later adds a layer that is hard to accommodate. What left me, after this ‘responsible’ slum tour, was how much pride, hope and ‘place’ was exhibited in these communities. We saw plastic recyclers, tanneries, schools – and the dreaded public loos. We peered in the slum dwellings, and remarked on the beautifully turned out children. We saw mostly smiles. We saw the computer facility, funded by the tours. To coin a phrase, we left only footprints, as it was forbidden to take photographs. This was an experience, and not a zoo. So why has Boo’s book unsettled me? Boo’s book offers little hope, and little sense of community. Neighbours seek to out do each other, make money off each other, none more so than Asha. There is such little kindness in Boo’s account, and that sits at odds with the people we met in India.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkable book. It is well-written, almost novel-like, with tension on every page. It is achingly sad, even more so as it is all true. This isn’t the creation of a novelist, making their darlings suffer. Boo spent three years living in Annawadi, aided by translators, to report on the lives of the people that feature in her book. It is an impressive project, boiled down to a highly engaging, if disturbing, read. I imagine that I will be thinking about it, haunted by it, long after shutting the book.


Book Review: Rising Ground by Philip Marsden

“Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land’s End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe… Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man’s perennial struggle to belong on this earth.”

I will state boldly, that Rising Ground is another book that I wish I had written. Philip Marsden is a gifted writer, with an ability to conjure up place from the page. He also manages to go beyond the sense of place, and in seeking the ‘spirit’ of it, he connects people to the landscape.

Cornwall is rich in history, and Marsden’s journey west towards Lands End, not taking the well-trodden paths, is fascinating and absorbing. It is a woven narrative with the renovation of the crumbled building his family have moved into, tucked away in old mine country, in the upper reaches of The Fal.

Rather like Robert MacFarlane, each place is a chapter, giving space for Marsden’s descriptions, research and pondering to breathe.  Even before the reader turns the first page of a chapter, Marsden tempts you in with an exploration of the origins of the name of the place – invoking its spirit. It is a journey the reader takes with him, as Marsden is generous with his own process and reflection.

As someone who has been curious about the world, inspired by a wonderful geography teacher in school, and then the subject of my first degree. I have been lucky enough to travel widely, but in coming to Cornwall, I too have found a gravity to place that I have not experienced anywhere else I’ve lived (and I’ve lived in a number of rural and city locations, with four years in the immediate post-Communist Poland). Perhaps his book speaks to me because of my wanderlust, my own curiosity and my joy at feeling home.

Marsden’s writing is sublime, better even than The Levelling Sea, with spine-tingling lines such as:

“There have been times writing this book, trying to reach the meaning of a place across the ages, when I have felt a shadow pass over my desk”

Rising Ground is a wonderful book, and Marsden makes me want to pull on my walking boots and wander the paths less travelled across Cornwall.